University of Vermont: History Review vol. 6, December 1994

Shades of Revisionism:
Holocaust Denial and the Conservative Call to Reinterpret German History

By Benjamin B. Weber

In the mid-1980s, a curious debate known as the Historikerstreit, or Historians' Conflict, took place in the German Federal Republic. The official concern of the debate, which was primarily carried out in two German newspapers, the conservative Frankfu rter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and the liberal weekly Die Zeit, had to do with the uniqueness of Nazi war crimes.[1] The conservatives, led by Ernst Nolte of the Free University of Berlin, argued that these crimes should be compared to other historical atr ocities, such as Stalinist terror. They called for a revised interpretation of German history, one that would be less offensive to Germans and allow them to form a stronger, more positive sense of national identity. The liberals, primarily Jürgen Hab ermas, professor of social philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, believed that these crimes put Germany in a class by itself. Rather than providing a more palatable interpretation of the German past, the liberals demanded that historians leave it int act and that the nation face up to the horrors of Nazism.[2]

Because of their open desire to reinterpret German history, the conservative participants in the debate became known as the "revisionists." But the revisionist label alarmed those familiar with the Institute for Historical Review and other organization s which overtly seek to prove that the Holocaust never occurred.[3] In an attempt to allay such anxieties, Norbert Kampe, professor at the Technische Universität in Berlin's Center for Research and Antisemitism, made the following comment in his arti cle "Normalizing the Holocaust":

. . . it is important to remember that the term 'revisionists' in internationally common usage has already been bestowed upon another group in connection with Holocaust research. It characterizes the deniers of the Holocaust in the framework o f a wide neo-Nazi literature and agitation, evoking such names as Faurisson, Butz, Stäglich, Rassinier, etc. The 'revisionists' who are the subject of discussion here, have absolutely nothing in common with the above-mentioned names.[4]

I disagree with Kampe. I think that one can and should compare the Historians' Conflict revisionists with those who claim that the event never occurred. This paper will show that Nolte and his conservative colleagues, while more subtle than the outrigh t deniers of the Holocaust, still relegate the German persecution of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, dissidents and other groups "unworthy of life" to relative insignificance. To achieve this I will first define the term revisionism and then use the paradigm this creates to analyze the works of Nolte. The third part of the paper will then address the work of Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954), the predominant German historian of the postwar era, showing that Nolte's revisionism is not a new development, but rathe r the continuation of an existing trend in German historiography. Lastly it will analyze the work of Jürgen Habermas, a German intellectual whose work represents the new liberal opposition to Nolte's conservatism.

Before discussing the writings themselves, it is logical to address the question of how one defines revisionism. Revisionism is the practice of intentionally altering the predominant interpretation of history. Revisionist historians seek to change the way people understand the past. The conservative participants in the Historians' Conflict employ four different methods of revisionism in their attempts to deny the historical significance of the Holocaust. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is the rhetorical questioning and denial of the validity of conventional wisdom concerning the evil nature of the Nazi period in general. The second tactic, considerably more prevalent in mainstream conservative German historiography, involves the intentional de nigration[5] of the Holocaust and the Third Reich. This is a less direct approach but is no less insidious. Its effect is to leave the reader with the understanding, subconsciously at least, that the Holocaust is not really an important part of German his tory.[6] The third type of revisionism involves guilt transference. If responsibility for the Holocaust can be transferred onto a particular group, for example the Nazis, who do not officially exist anymore. Finally, historical revisionism can take the fo rm of relativism. In the case of relativism the revisionist historian or the victims, i.e., the Jews, then believing the German people can exonerate themselves diminishes the individual historical significance of the Holocaust by comparing it with other e vents. He attempts to reduce the significance of the Holocaust by arguing that it was no more remarkable than other atrocities. It is as if comparative genocides cancel each other.

In his writings, Nolte stops short of directly challenging the veracity of Holocaust scholarship. The closest he comes to doing so is in his essay entitled "The Past That Does Not Want to Pass On," when he says: "It is probable that many of these repor ts [of exterminations] were exaggerated."[7] However, he does challenge whether the Nazi regime was as fundamentally evil as contemporary scholarship maintains. Consider the following comment from his 1985 article "Between Myth and Revisionism:"

For many years the best known school of social analysis has based its research on constant references to the Third Reich, and prominent politicians in the Federal Republic of Germany have had to resign or fear for their positions if the slight est, relatively harmless, connection with the Third Reich has been proved. Statements denying that many who were SA men around 1933 had criminal intentions, despite their bloodthirsty songs, are considered dangerous minimizations, and in numerous popular publications in the USA SA and SS men are constantly depicted as plundering houses, torturing prisoners and raping women.[8]

Such a statement shows no regard for the fact that SS and SA men did, in fact, plunder houses, torture prisoners and rape women, and that this is precisely why most historians consider these organizations to have been criminal. However, by making such assertions and by raising questions like whether the 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler was a responsible act, and whether the 1943 Allied bombing of Hamburg was necessary,[9] Nolte presupposes the legitimacy of the Nazi regime. In order to follow Nolte's logic one has to ignore the inherent immorality of Hitler's government and German responsibility for the war in Europe. Therefore, Nolte's indirect assertion that Germans acted legally and respectably under Hitler is dangerous.

Besides denying the validity of conventional scholarship's interpretation of Nazi history, Nolte also seeks to deny the significance of the Holocaust. In "Between Myth and Revisionism" he claims that Nazi history has taken on the aspects of a myth.[10] He presents contemporary historiography as history written by the victors and considers it flawed as a result. To illustrate his point he speculates about what would happen if the Palestine Liberation Organization were to overthrow Israel. According to N olte, none of the positive achievements of the Israelis would be subsequently remembered.[11] Nolte asserts that similarly no one is remembering the good things about the Third Reich. However, remembering Nazi Germany positively would require either blata ntly suppressing the memory of the Holocaust, justifying it, or presenting it as somehow insignificant, not really so bad. Nolte's logic leads to the conclusion that the persecution and brutal murder of millions of innocent civilians was acceptable, if tr agic. At the very least it was not so horrible that it should preclude German identification with and fondness for the Nazi past.

In 1986, in the midst of the Historians' Conflict, Nolte took this denigration a step further by saying:

Those who speak of "German guilt" overlook all too assiduously the similarity between this and the talk of "Jewish guilt," which was central to the Nazi argument.[12]

This juxtaposition of the concept of "German guilt" with the concept of "Jewish guilt," the argument that the Jews were responsible for their own fate, implies that the contemporary German situation is analogous to the Jewish position under the Nazis. This is untrue, of course; the Jewish situation in 1942 was incalculably worse than anything the Germans were facing in the 1980s. However, his analogy might mislead the nondiscriminating reader, obfuscating his understanding of Nazi terror.

Having discussed the first two types of revisionism I outlined, denial and denigration, I would like to address the third: guilt transference. Nolte does not tend to disassociate the Germans from Nazism. He does, however, propose openly that the Jews s hare responsibility for the Holocaust.[13] In "Between Myth and Revisionism" he defends the claim of Nazi-apologist historian and Holocaust denier, David Irving.[14] According to Irving the Jews declared war on Germany in September, 1939, when Chaim Weizm ann, then leader of the Zionist movement, stated that the Jewish people would fight for England.[15] If one accepts this argument one can transfer the responsibility for Auschwitz directly onto the Jews themselves, claiming that if they did not want to di e in the gas chambers, they should not have declared war on Germany. For German readers who wish to take nationalistic pride in their country's history, this must be an appealing argument. However, considering the Holocaust a mass Jewish suicide requires overlooking the events leading up to Weizmann's declaration. How could anyone familiar with the expulsion of Jews from the civil service in 1933, the Nuremberg laws of 1935, and the vicious pogrom of November 9, 1938, Reichskristallnacht, see Weizmann's d eclaration as anything but a frustrated reaction to German aggression? By trying to blame the Jews, Nolte seductively puts the blame for the Holocaust where it does not belong.

Nolte also brings this revisionist weapon of guilt transference to bear in his treatment of the Soviet Union. Toward the end of "Between Myth and Revisionism" he makes the following claim:

He who does not want to see Hitler's annihilation of the Jews in this context [Soviet aggression] is possibly led by very noble motives, but he falsifies history. In his legitimate search for the direct causes he overlooks the main preconditio n without which all those causes would have remained without effect. Auschwitz is not primarily a result of traditional anti-Semitism. It was in its core not merely a 'genocide' but was above all a reaction born out of the anxiety of the annihilating occu rrences of the Russian Revolution . . . the so-called annihilation of the Jews during the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original.[16]

Nolte is clearly claiming here that the roots of the Holocaust do not lie in German antisemitism, but rather in the Bolshevik revolution, thus shifting the blame from the German people to the communist Soviets. Most scholars scoff at this notion that t he revolution of 1917 created a situation in which the German people were locked in a struggle to the death with European Jewry. However, imagine the effect it could have on young Germans who have difficulty accepting that their relatives belonged to a fl agrantly criminal society. Particularly if they are not confident in disagreeing with an established member of the German academic community like Nolte, they might be lulled into thinking that the Holocaust was a defensive action.

Finally, Nolte uses the practice of relativism to try and mitigate the severity of German history. The following is an excerpt from his essay "The Past That Does Not Want to Pass On:"

Was not the "Gulag Archipelago" more original than Auschwitz? Was not the "class murder" of the Bolsheviks the logical and factual predecessor of the National Socialist "race murders?"[17]

In equating the Holocaust with the gulags Nolte is trying to take advantage of a flaw in the western psyche. It is true that we as a society lament many other atrocities less than the Holocaust. Many more high schools discuss The Diary of Anne Frank th an accounts of the tragedies in Bangladesh or the Sudan, or even the works of Solzhenitsyn. Aware of this, Nolte attempts to bring our consciousness of the Holocaust down to the same level. He does this by comparing Auschwitz to the Soviet gulags, both of which were undeniably places of great suffering. However, his conclusion that Auschwitz should be allowed to fade into distant memory because the Soviet people have escaped the mass scrutiny which the world has brought to bear on Germans is unfair. Rathe r than concluding that the Soviets should bear guilt as well, a potentially legitimate claim, he advocates vindication of German guilt for Auschwitz. By attempting to reduce the scrutiny of the Holocaust to the same level of other atrocities, Nolte implie s that the only relevant consideration is that no one country appears more evil than another.

Having dissected the apologetic works of Nolte I would like to draw the reader's attention to Friedrich Meinecke, a renowned German historian who wrote in the immediate postwar era. It is important to understand that Nolte's defense of the Nazi period was not a new development in the 1980s but a continuation of a preexisting trend. In 1946 Meinecke published a brief history of Germany entitled German Catastrophe. Its purpose was to try and explain the origins of Nazism. However, at no point in this 120 -page work does Meinecke ever mention, or even allude to, the Holocaust. It is inconceivable that after the fall of Germany, the denazification attempts of the Allied occupation, and the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals, a man of Meinecke's intelligence and stature could remain ignorant of what went on in the Nazi death camps. He intentionally left the Holocaust out. This omission displays both passive denial and denigration of the event. In ignoring the Holocaust he directly places its veracity in question . More important, however, is the fact that his omission of the event conveys the message that it is not significant. From his book one gets the impression that it is possible to write a comprehensive history of Germany from the early nineteenth century t o 1945 without including reference to Nazi atrocities. Meinecke's work is similar to Nolte's in that he seems to consider the Holocaust unimportant.

Meinecke's use of language is interesting as well. He never talks about what the Germans did during the war, only the Nazis. He describes the Third Reich as a catastrophic wave that "burst upon Germany."[18] From reading his book one gets the impressio n that the Nazis were some alien race that came to Earth and exploited the pristine land of poets and thinkers, forcing the German people to carry out its evil plans.[19] Consider, for example, his following description of Hitler:

This fellow does not belong to our race at all. There is something wholly foreign about him, something like an otherwise extinct primitive race that is still completely amoral in its nature . . . in spite of his very close connection with the life of his time, there lay something foreign to us Germans and difficult to nderstand.[20]

Meinecke wanted to dissociate Germans from Nazis as thoroughly as possible. The attractiveness of such an estrangement is that it leads to a vindication of the German people by transferring the guilt for their crimes onto a third party, the Nazis. It o verlooks, however, the fact that most Germans accepted and supported Nazi rule in much the same way that Nolte's argument overlooks German provocation of Weizmann in 1939. Rather than leaving responsibility for Nazi atrocities with the German people both Nolte and Meinecke try to misplace the blame. However, Nazi ideology could not have spread through Germany without the cooperation its citizens. Therefore, Meinecke's attempt to dissociate the two is not plausible.

Finally, Meinecke used the same revisionist tactic of relativism, like Nolte, to try to mitigate the German guilt for atrocities committed during World War II. His book begins by explaining how one can trace the German swing towards Nazism back to a Ma chiavellian style ideology.[21] The effect of this argument is to associate the roots of Nazi ideology with a legitimate, if dishonorable, philosophy. In the following accusation he takes this theory to its logical conclusion, arguing that German ideology was no worse than that of any other country:

No, the Machiavellian, amoral element in the Germans of Hitler's day was not limited to Germany alone but was part of the general fermentation in a monstrous process, whether of the decline or of the transformation of the West into new forms of life. " There is none who doeth good, no, not one," can be thrown back in answer to those who accuse the German people of disturbing the peace of nations by its amoral, intoxicated craze for power.[22]

In this accusation Meinecke directly mitigates the significance of the German nation's crimes by claiming that its rivals were no better. This is similar to Nolte's comparison of Auschwitz and the Stalinist gulags. Even if it is true that the "Machiave llian, amoral element" of Nazism was not limited to Germany, this in no way excuses the Germans for their conduct under Hitler. However, by removing the element of singularity from Nazism, Meinecke, like Nolte, makes the dangerous implication that it is e thical to do bad things as long as others are doing them as well.

There is a great deal of similarity in the ways that Nolte and Meinecke attempt to reduce the historical significance of Nazi atrocities. There are differences to be sure. Nolte does not avoid the issue of the Holocaust the way Meinecke did, for exampl e. However, both advocate what I would consider a revisionist approach to Nazi history. By employing tactics of denial, denigration, transference, and relativism, they both seek to reduce the relevance of this horrible period and to deny German responsibi lity for it. The approach of the revisionists in the Historians' Conflict was, therefore, nothing new in German historiography.

What was progressive about the Historians' Conflict was the liberal response to the revisionists, spearheaded by the Frankfurt social philosopher, JÜrgen Habermas. Habermas' involvement in the debate was primarily a reaction to Nolte and the other revisionists.[23] He attacked the revisionists on three points: their motivations, i.e., why they advocate revisionism, their lack of respect for historical truth, and the implications of revising German history. Having criticized their work in this way, Habermas concluded that Germans must collectively acknowledge and accept responsibility for their history.

Habermas sees revisionism as being primarily a political issue, having to do with the fact that many Germans born after 1945 are irritated at being held responsible for the crimes of their parents.[24] He criticizes the revisionists for attempting to p rovide Germans with a history that will alleviate their sense of guilt. He challenges the practice of writing about tragedies suffered by Germans without accepting responsibility for atrocities they themselves inflicted. According to Habermas, if the Germ ans exclusively seek to address aspects of history which do not discredit them, they will lose not only international respect, but the ability to respect themselves.[25]

In attacking the revisionists for their tendency to address certain issues selectively, Habermas confronts them on the legitimacy of their methodology. He claims that they present arguments that one can only believe if one is unfamiliar with the full s cope of German history, particularly Nazi atrocities.[26] In his essay "Regarding the Public Use of History," Habermas ridicules Nolte's comment that the international community would not have accepted a German outcry against a state visit to Arlington Na tional Cemetery as readily as it accepted American objections to President Reagan's 1985 Bitburg visit. Nolte had argued that the American bomber crew members buried there were responsible for "terrorist attacks" as insidious as anything the SS men buried at Bitburg had done. Habermas issued the following sarcastic reply:

When one thinks through the presuppositions of this oddly constructed example one has to admire the uninhibitedness with which an internationally renowned German historian equates Auschwitz and Dresden.[27]

Habermas criticizes Nolte for not drawing the conclusion that, unlike the Jews, the Germans brought the destruction of Dresden on themselves. He accuses the revisionists of only mentioning the suffering Germans had to bear in the second World War; the plundering and mass rapes of the Red Army, for example, without mentioning the misery Germans inflicted on the other European countries. However difficult it is for Germans to accept, one cannot consider the Allied invasion negatively when one recalls tha t it finally ended the Holocaust. The revisionist historians, as Habermas points out, never make this connection.[28]

Habermas also criticizes revisionist attempts to historicize Nazi history; to decrease its impact on contemporary Germany. If nothing else, he argues, letting the memory of this tragic period fade risks losing the lessons it has to offer.[29] He also m akes the interesting observation that the German Federal Republic was built out of the aftermath of the traumatic experiences of World War II and the Holocaust. Because of this, he sees revisionist attempts to try to erase the German consciousness of thes e events as subversive. In doing so they threaten the only concrete basis for Germany's connection to the Western liberal democratic tradition.[30] Furthermore, Habermas contends, one has to ask if returning German self-consciousness to its prewar state i s wise. After all, this would bring the Germans one step closer to the mindset that led to the war in the first place.

In his final analysis of how Germans should approach their history, Habermas suggests that they look at the Nazi period as a screen through which they must filter the substance of their culture.[31] The Germans, he says, do not need to relinquish their ties to Goethe and Lessing, but they do need to understand that the land that produced such magnificent culture also produced Auschwitz. He also maintains that all Germans need to accept collective responsibility for the crimes committed in their recent history. The first reason he gives for this is that the victims of German aggression have an undeniable moral right to lasting remembrance. Secondly, he claims that any renunciation of such a responsibility would have negative effects on contemporary Germ any. He suggests that this might inhibit the establishment of a "normal" relationship with Israel, for example.[32] Finally, Habermas makes the point that even Germans born after the war were raised in a culture in which Auschwitz was possible. Therefore, they are inextricably tied to their Nazi heritage.[33] He sees responsibility for Nazi atrocities as part of the overall cultural inheritance of all Germans. Therefore, he considers it irresponsible for historians such as Nolte to try to revise history, providing new interpretations designed to excuse young Germans from their obligation to acknowledge the crimes of their ancestors.

I tend to agree with Habermas on this point. Over time the Holocaust will slowly become less of a contemporary issue and more of a historical one. This will have to be a natural process, however. Historians should not force it to happen more quickly by providing revised interpretations of the unpleasant German past. The overt rewriting and falsification of history by scholars such as Nolte and Meinecke seems disturbingly Orwellian. I cannot accept that intentionally obscuring the facts of Nazi atrociti es is a healthy way to strengthen German national pride. Therefore, I find Kampe's claim that Nolte and his colleagues should not be associated with other Holocaust revisionists na•ve and apologetic. Their intentions are every bit as insidious. Relegating the mass murder of millions of innocent victims to insignificance is no less destructive than claiming it did not happen at all. The use of indirect tactics may, in fact, make revisionists like Nolte more dangerous than their more notorious counterparts. Presenting their ideas as legitimate scholarship allows them to hold prestigious academic positions at places like the Free University of Berlin. This affords them both the opportunity to voice their opinions in front of a broad audience and the respect to ensure that those listening will be largely uncritical, a dangerous combination.


1) There are several levels to this debate, mostly having to do with the liberal reaction to the rise of intellectual conservatism following the election of Helmut Kohl as Chancellor in 1982. For more on the various implications of the debate see: Char les S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). This paper will primarily focus on the debate's official concern: the singularity of Nazi atrocities.

2) Maier, 1.

3) For more information on those organizations and individuals which seek to deny that the Holocaust ever took place see: Deborah Lipstadt, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory" (New York: Penguin Books, 1993); and Pierre Vid al-Naquet, "Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust" trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: Colombia University Press, 1992).

4) Norbert Kampe, "Normalizing the Holocaust? The Recent Historians' Debate in the Federal Republic of Germany," trans. Jerry Schuchalter, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 2 (1987): 70.

5) I understand "denigrate" to mean: "1. To deny the validity or importance of; belittle." The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd college ed., s.v. "denigrate."

6) Doris Bergen, "Holocaust Deniers and Revisors," lecture, Burlington, Vt., October 29, 1993.

7) Ernst Nolte, "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will," Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 6 June 1986, reprinted in Rudolph Augstein, et al., Historikerstreit: Die Dokumenten der Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Judenverni chtung (München: Piper Verlag, 1987), 45. All translations are the author's unless otherwise specified.

8) Nolte's essay "Between Myth and Revisionism? The Third Reich in the Perspective of the 1980s" was first published in English in: H. W. Koch, ed., Aspects of the Third Reich (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), 17-18.

9) Nolte, "Between Myth and Revisionism," 27-28.

10) Nolte, "Between Myth and revisionism," 21-22.

11) Nolte, "Between Myth and Revisionism," 21-22.

12) Nolte, "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will," 41.

13) Nolte, "Between Myth and Revisionism," 27-28.

14) For more on Irving's role in Holocaust denial consult Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust.

15) Nolte, "Between Myth and Revisionism," 27-28.

16) Nolte, "Between Myth and Revisionism," 35.

17) Nolte, "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will," 45.

18) Friedrich Meinecke, German Catastrophe: Reflections and Recollections, trans. Sidney B. Fay (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950; reprint ed., Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 1.

19) Meinecke, 21-22.

20) Meinecke, 58.

21) Meinecke, 51.

22) Meinecke, 53.

23) Interestingly, German scholars hold Habermas personally responsible for the debate. See, for example, the following quote from Thomas Nipperdey, a Munich contemporary historian: "I consider the debate opened by Habermas to be a misfortune . . . "Th omas Nipperdey, "Unter Herrschaft des Verdachts: Wissenschaftliche Aussagen dÜrfen nicht an ihrer politischen Funktion gemessen werden," Die Zeit, 17 October 1986; reprinted in Augstein, 218.

24) JÜrgen Habermas, "Vom äffentlichen Gebrauch der Historie," Die Zeit, 7 November 1986, reprinted in Augstein, 243.

25) Habermas, "Vom äffentlichen Gebrauch der Historie," 248.

26) JÜrgen Habermas, "Eine Art Schadensabwicklung," Die Zeit, 11 July 1986, reprinted in Augstein, 64.

27) Habermas, "Vom äffentlichen Gebrauch der Historie," 245-46.

28) Habermas, "Eine Art Schadensabwicklung," 64.

29) Habermas, "Eine Art Schadensabwicklung," 75.

30) Habermas, "Eine Art Schadensabwicklung," 75-76.

31) Habermas, "Vom äffentlichen Gebrauch der Historie," 249.

32) Habermas, "Vom äffentlichen Gebrauch der Historie," 247-48.

33) In his essay "Regarding the Public use of History," Habermas uses the term Lebensform, which translates as "life forms," to refer to the German cultural inheritance. Consider the following quotation: "Now as ever remains the simple fact that those born after were also raised in a Lebensform in which that [the Holocaust] was possible." Habermas, "Vom äffentlichen Gebrauch der Historie," 247.

UVM History Review vol. 6, December 1994